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SEC Football: 10 Things to Watch in 2019

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

The SEC heads into the upcoming season with two playoff contenders (Alabama and Georgia) and three other teams (Florida, LSU and Texas A&M) projected by Athlon Sports to finish inside of the top 10 for 2019. In other words, the top of the league is heavy once again. And in an unusual twist, the offseason provided no coaching changes. But the coaching drama won't stop anytime soon in the SEC. Auburn's Gus Malzahn enters 2019 on the hot seat, and the Tigers are arguably the biggest wild card in the league. 

What are the biggest storylines surrounding the SEC for 2019? Matt Hinton examines Tua's quest for the Heisman, Kelly Bryant's arrival at Missouri, Jake Bentley's senior year at South Carolina, Florida and Texas A&M's 2019 outlook and more:

SEC Football: 10 Things to Watch in 2019

1. Alabama Bounces Back

Alabama's 44–16 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship was the worst defeat of Nick Saban's tenure, by far, and in more ways than one. First, there was the final score itself — the 28-point margin marked the largest deficit Bama has faced at any point in any game since Saban arrived in 2007. But there was also the fact that the debacle came on the sport's biggest stage, one on which the Crimson Tide had cemented their dominant rep in the past. And beyond that, the fact that it came at the expense of a team that, up to that point, had been arguably the best of the Saban era. The Bama Death Star has taken its share of hits over the years; the Tigers, with their arrival as a full-fledged dynasty in their own right, rocked it to the core.

The expectations in 2019, of course, are the same as always: championship or bust. On the sideline, though, the operation is very much in transition. Even for a staff that has regularly served as a launching pad for assistants en route to more lucrative jobs, the brain drain over the past two years has been dramatic. Following the championship loss, Saban sent first-year defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi packing for the NFL, completing a mass exodus from the Bama coaching staff that also included offensive coordinator Mike Locksley (the new head coach at Maryland) and quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, who was in line to fill Locksley's seat as the chief play caller until he opted to leave for the OC job at Miami instead.

Not that attrition is anything new for Saban, who's used to watching his assistants leave for greener pastures at nearly the same rate that his players leave for the NFL Draft. In fact, this past winter marked the third consecutive offseason in which he's found himself in the market for new coordinators on both sides of the ball. (That's in stark contrast to the stability at Clemson, where Dabo Swinney has replaced just one outgoing coordinator since 2012 and promoted from within to do it.) In the case of Lupoi and Enos, though, it was the first time that the vacancies were created by assistants leaving for something other than a plum head coaching gig.

As usual, the departures haven't diminished Saban's unstoppable recruiting machine — 247Sports ranked Alabama's 2019 signing class as the best in the nation once again — and Bama's depth chart will likely remain the envy of the sport for the foreseeable future. But the Tide have never had to rebound from being laid as low as they were in Santa Clara, and the coaching personnel in charge of turning all that talent into tangible results has never been less familiar.

Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2019

2. Georgia: Third Time's the Charm

Within the SEC, the primary threat to Alabama's ongoing supremacy is still the team built most deliberately in the Crimson Tide's image: Georgia. In four years in Athens, Kirby Smart has assembled a year-in, year-out recruiting operation that rivals the one he observed up close in Tuscaloosa as a longtime Saban assistant, yielding a lineup that stacks up athletically against Bama's on an annual basis. Like his old mentor, Smart will lean heavily this fall on a veteran quarterback, junior Jake Fromm, who boasts first-round potential and a 23–5 record as a starter. Now, the only step left in the Bulldogs' push to supplant the Tide as the league's standard-bearer is to actually, you know, beat the Tide.

On the scoreboard, it's a dead heat. The two Bama-Georgia meetings that bookended 2018 — the 2017 National Championship Game in January, followed by the rematch for the SEC crown in December — both went right down to the wire, with Alabama prevailing in dramatic fashion. For Georgia, a proud program still in pursuit of its first national title in nearly four decades, the razor-thin margins only inflamed the sting. In both games, UGA cruised to a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter, only to be outscored by a combined 30–3 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Altogether, Georgia has lost five straight to Bama dating back to 2008, each one of them devastating in its own way.

Talent-wise, the 2019 Bulldogs should be on par with the 2017-18 editions that pushed the Tide to the brink, if not better. No team in America, not even Bama, boasts more five-star recruits on its current roster. Still, with Fromm potentially off to the next level after this season, and with no obvious heir apparent behind him in the wake of Justin Fields' offseason transfer to Ohio State, their window for getting over the hump isn't going to get any wider than it is right now.

3. Tua for Heisman (Again)

Whatever concerns exist on Alabama's sideline, behind center there are none whatsoever. Tua Tagovailoa easily surpassed the hype that preceded his sophomore campaign, obliterating every Bama passing record at the helm of the highest-scoring attack in SEC history while relegating his decorated predecessor in the starting lineup, Jalen Hurts, to an afterthought. (And subsequently to the transfer market.) Right from the start, Tagovailoa was the breakout, above-the-fold star of the 2018 season, a bombs-away passer so efficient that he typically needed just two quarters, three max, to put up the kind of numbers most quarterbacks can only dream of on their best day. Behind his effortless arm, the Crimson Tide racked up touchdowns at such an absurd pace that by midseason it came as a shock any time they didn't score.

Despite the endless list of superlatives, though — or maybe because of it — Tua's season felt slightly... incomplete. In December, he settled for runner-up in a Heisman race that just a few days earlier had seemed like a shoo-in, until a mediocre, injury-shortened turn in the SEC Championship Game ended with Hurts rallying the Tide to victory in Tagovailoa's place. In January, he was eclipsed in the national title game by Clemson's true freshman phenom, Trevor Lawrence. The sport's defining trophies, both of which may as well have had his name engraved on them for most of the year, both wound up slipping from his grasp.

Given how it ended (and given the shadow cast by Clemson and Lawrence this time around), it's a testament to Tagovailoa's transcendence throughout the rest of the season that he remains arguably the favorite to bring both prizes back to Tuscaloosa this time. There's no shortage of weapons at his disposal: Bama's receiving corps returns virtually intact, including four targets — Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith — who combined for more than 3,500 yards and 38 touchdowns last year on nearly 18 yards per catch. There are also no doubts about Tua's ability to deliver in high-stakes moments, as he proved in the Tide's dramatic win over Georgia in the national title game on Jan. 8, 2018. The NFL awaits in 2020, when he's widely projected to go No. 1 overall in the draft. Anything less than a clean sweep of the major hardware before he does will go down as a missed opportunity.

Related: College Football's Top 35 Coordinator Hires for 2019

4. Leap Years at Florida, Texas A&M

Expectations weren't especially high for Dan Mullen's and Jimbo Fisher's first season at Florida and Texas A&M, respectively — neither team was ranked in the preseason AP poll — and by that standard, both debuts were a success. In Gainesville, Mullen's Gators improved from 4–7 to 10–3, earned a New Year's Six bowl bid and ended with their highest final ranking in January (No. 7) since Tim Tebow's senior season. At A&M, the Aggies reversed their annual November fade under Fisher's predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, closing on a four-game win streak to finish 9–4, their best mark since Johnny Manziel's swan song in 2013. A pair of blowout bowl wins and top-10 recruiting classes propelled both teams into the offseason on a gust of real optimism.

Now the hard part: Following through in Year 2, the point when ascendant programs tend to make their biggest leap forward. In this case, it's also when two of the most, let's say, enthusiastic fan bases in the country will be anxious to see the kind of returns on their schools' enormous investments that rivals Georgia and Texas have seen on theirs. Fisher has the harder road there, in part due to the jaw-dropping, 10-year, $75 million contract he signed last year, and in even larger part due to A&M's schedule: On top of the standard SEC West gauntlet, the Aggies will also be certain underdogs on an early road trip to Clemson and late visit to Georgia. Florida's big nonconference tests (Miami to open, Florida State to close) are more manageable, and the Gators miss Alabama again in the cross-division draw. But Mullen didn't come cheap, either, and UGA remains the runaway favorite to extend its reign in the East to three years and counting.

In other words, it's the kind of season where the difference between a breakthrough and a letdown could very well come down to just a handful of plays. The margin will likely hinge on a pair of third-year starters behind center, Florida's Feleipe Franks and A&M's Kellen Mond, who remain works in progress despite making significant strides as sophomores. On paper, Franks and Mond are both former blue-chip prospects with an intriguing cast of receivers at their disposal; on the sideline, Mullen and Fisher both have proven track records of developing quality QBs who go on to play at the next level. If their latest protégés continue to advance along the same curve, the pieces are in place elsewhere to give the division front-runners a real run for their money.

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5. All Quiet on the Coaching Front

SEC head coaches are never very far from the ledge in terms of job security, and the 2017 season, in particular, played out as one long, depressing exercise in walking the plank. Ole Miss fired its scandal-plagued coach, Hugh Freeze, barely a month before the season opener. Florida was next, abruptly tossing Jim McElwain overboard as his team began to unravel in late October. Tennessee let Butch Jones go with two games left in the season. Arkansas and Texas A&M waited until the end of the regular season to cast off Bret Bielema and Kevin Sumlin, respectively, creating an unprecedented number of simultaneous vacancies in the league's head coaching ranks. In all, nearly half the conference entered 2018 under new management.

By contrast, the waters entering 2019 are remarkably calm: All 14 head coaches are back, and none is clearly on the hot seat — at least, not yet. Optimism is high at Florida and Texas A&M after promising debuts under Dan Mullen and Jimbo Fisher. There's still plenty of time for Chad Morris and Jeremy Pruitt to get things sorted out after predictable last-place finishes at Arkansas and Tennessee. Matt Luke remains entrenched in Oxford despite a 5–7 finish in his first full season, a wash given that the Rebels were ineligible for a bowl game, anyway. Outside of the sophomore class, all but one of the conference's longer-tenured coaches — Vanderbilt's Derek Mason — are coming off winning seasons.

If any SEC coach is facing a make-or-break year, it's Mason, who has yet to produce a winning record in any of his first five seasons in Nashville; then again, he has taken the Commodores to a pair of bowl games and has presided over a three-game winning streak against rival Tennessee. South Carolina's Will Muschamp could be feeling the heat after the Gamecocks regressed to 7–6 in his third season; then again, Carolina is certainly in better shape than it was when Muschamp arrived, and just breaking even this fall against the league's toughest schedule could be enough for him to survive. At Auburn, the perpetually embattled Gus Malzahn is up against the usual expectations, but he also has a formidable buyout and a deep, talented roster with every chance to improve on last year's dip to 8–5. Assuming the Tigers do, the conference could be in for another unusually quiet winter.

6. Hold that Tiger (To a Higher Standard)

LSU didn't come close to snapping its eight-game losing streak vs. Alabama or insinuate itself into the national conversation beyond midseason. In other ways, though, it was the most reassuring campaign in Baton Rouge in years: The Tigers won 10 games for the first time since 2013, earned their highest AP finish (sixth) since 2011, and notched as many wins against top-10 opponents (four) as they had over the previous five years combined. Compared to the preseason expectations — which generally forecast a very green, offensively challenged outfit limping to its worst record since the turn of the century — it was a banner year.

This time around, the expectations should feel more familiar: The 2019 edition is not nearly as green, and as Ed Orgeron settles into his third full season as head coach, the grading curve won't be nearly as forgiving. The defense returns eight starters, led by arguably the SEC's best defensive player, jack-of-all-trades safety Grant Delpit. The offense remains in the capable hands of senior Joe Burrow, who immediately won over the locker room after arriving from Ohio State last summer and entrenched himself as LSU's most popular signal caller in ages. The supporting cast includes essentially the entire receiving corps and four-fifths of the starting offensive line. Personnel-wise, the biggest question mark is arguably finding a reliable replacement for All-SEC kicker Cole Tracy. Talent wise, LSU is LSU.

Record-wise, though? Progress is a tougher sell. While the fan base quickly warmed up to Burrow, he never quite rose above the "game manager" label that has defined LSU quarterbacks for most of the decade; statistically, he finished in the bottom half of the conference in terms of pass efficiency and yards per attempt — a marked decline in both categories compared to his predecessor, Danny Etling — and looked as overmatched in a 29–0 loss to Alabama as any other recent LSU QB against the Tide.

In addition to the odd-year trip to Tuscaloosa, the schedule also calls for an early road test at Texas and annual toss-up dates with Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M, all three of which came down to literally the final play in 2018. Tigers fans may be as anxious as ever to watch nationally relevant football beyond the first weekend in November, but barring a quantum leap by Burrow (or at least an awful lot of breaks going LSU's way) they're likely in for more of the same.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football QBs for 2019

7. Auburn's Offensive Reset

At its best, Auburn's offense under Gus Malzahn is a balanced, up-tempo attack that ties defenses in knots with a mobile quarterback, an emphasis on churning out yards between the tackles and an array of weapons with quick-strike capabilities. At its worst, it looks like it did in 2018: plodding, one-dimensional, and devoid of difference-makers. In SEC play, the Tigers set new Malzahn-era lows for both yards per game (328.0) and per play (5.1) while just barely edging the 2015 edition in scoring (22.3 ppg to 22.1 ppg). Compared to 2017, quarterback Jarrett Stidham's efficiency rating vs. conference opponents plunged by more than 40 points; on the ground, Auburn failed to produce an individual 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in a decade.

No wonder, then, that the prevailing sentiment this offseason was… uh, optimism? Believe it. The good vibes began with Malzahn himself, who reclaimed play-calling duties for the Music City Bowl and promptly presided over a 63-point bonanza against Purdue. Almost everyone who touched the ball for the Tigers that day will be back, along with a fully intact offensive line consisting of five fifth-year seniors. And although Stidham has departed for the NFL, there were four viable candidates in the spring vying to replace him, each of whom brought something different to the table. Junior Malik Willis was the most experienced in Malzahn's system, having served two years as the top backup. He decided to transfer at the end of spring practice, which left redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix as the leading candidates to start. Gatewood is the most intriguing talent, combining blue-chip athleticism with a 6'5", 240-pound frame reminiscent of Cam Newton; Nix is the most hyped, arriving with a five-star rating from recruitniks on the heels of a decorated prep career; and 24-year-old Cord Sandberg is the most mature, with six years of minor league baseball under his belt.

With Malzahn back to calling plays full-time, there are two possible outcomes: A dramatic rebound that puts the Tigers in the running for a New Year's Six bowl, or another round of speculation over whether his tenure has run its course.

8. Jake Bentley's Last Ride

At 6'4", 224 pounds, South Carolina QB Jake Bentley has the size, the arm, the pocket presence, the coach's-son pedigree and — when it all comes together — the production of a prototypical pro prospect. The frustrating part is just how few and far between those glimpses of the total package have been.

Almost from the moment he was handed the reins as a true freshman, Bentley's skill set was obvious. In each of the past two seasons, though, he's finished squarely in the middle of the pack among SEC quarterbacks in terms of pass efficiency and Total QBR, a reflection of his tendency to alternate occasionally brilliant performances (see his 510-yard, five-touchdown eruption against Clemson last November) with mediocre and occasionally terrible ones (see last year's season-ending, 28–0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl, in which Bentley was picked twice). Highlight-reel throws have often been offset by mistakes. His interception rate in 2018 ranked 13th out of 14 full-time SEC starters; altogether, he's thrown more picks over the past two seasons (26) than all but one other FBS passer in the same span. As a team, Carolina is 1–10 against ranked opponents with Bentley at the helm.

No, that's not all on the quarterback, for a variety of reasons. The ground game has consistently ranked among the SEC's worst in yards per game and per carry. Bentley himself was limited by a midseason knee injury. And the Gamecocks lost two key games down the stretch (against Clemson and Florida, both on the road) in which they topped 30 points against top-10 opponents. Nor does it mean that he necessarily lacks the pieces around him to deliver on his potential. The top returning receivers, Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith, are sure-handed vets with nearly 200 catches between them over the past two years and legitimate NFL aspirations. With more consistency, Bentley could generate first-round buzz. More of the same, and the Gamecocks could find themselves underwater against a brutal schedule very quickly.

9. Kelly Bryant Bets Big on Mizzou

From Kelly Bryant's point of view, his decision to leave Clemson last September was a no-brainer. For one, it was obvious to everyone and their mother after four games that the future of the program, Trevor Lawrence, had already surpassed Bryant as the present as well. For another, the NCAA's revised redshirt rule allowed Bryant, a true senior, to preserve his final year of eligibility — along with his last chance to play his way onto NFL scouts' radars — as long as he didn't see the field again in 2018. When coaches made Lawrence's promotion official, they also effectively made Bryant's decision for him.

A graduate transfer can go anywhere he's in demand; for a proven quarterback with a 16–2 record as a starter at a perennial playoff contender, that's just about everywhere. But Mizzou did have a glaring vacancy: The most prolific passer in school history, Drew Lock, wrapped up his college career in December with his 46th consecutive start, having presided unchallenged over the position since 2015. Even devoted Missouri fans would have trouble recalling the names of the Tigers' post-Lock QB recruits. With no clear heir apparent, Bryant was anointed as the de facto starter from Day 1.

Unlike at Clemson, he won't be surrounded by a deep cast of four- and five-star talent, and unlike Lock, he doesn't boast an NFL-ready arm; Bryant's mobility will force the offense to adapt to an entirely different style. There's also no possibility of playing for a championship after Mizzou was unexpectedly hit with a one-year postseason ban before the start of spring practice. But if Bryant can help lift them into the black, and improve his draft stock in the process, both sides can consider the experiment a success.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Head Coaches for 2019

10. Kentucky's Staying Power

It didn't yield the long-awaited trip to Atlanta, but in almost every other sense 2018 was the best season for Kentucky football in decades: The Wildcats finished above .500 in SEC play (5–3) for the first time since the conference split into two divisions in 1992; they snapped the league's longest active losing streak, a 31-game skid against Florida dating back to 1986; they earned their highest finish in the AP poll (12th) since 1977; and they went out with UK's first traditional January bowl win (in the Citrus) since 1951, under head coach Bear Bryant. For fans, it was the first time many of them had ever had the opportunity to cheer for a team that was still relevant into hoops season. For Mark Stoops, who'd spent much of the previous five years on the hot seat, it was validation of the program he'd been building from the start.

This season brings an entirely different challenge. The core of last year's run departed en masse, including face-of-the-program tailback Benny Snell Jr., who accounted for a full third of the team's total offense, and All-America linebacker Josh Allen, a top-five draft pick who turned in arguably the best individual season in school history. Three starters are gone from the offensive line that paved the way for Snell; on defense, the Wildcats lost four of their top five tacklers (including Allen) from a unit that finished sixth nationally in points allowed. The secondary, especially, will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch.

Even the incumbent quarterback, Terry Wilson, is far from a proven commodity after coming in near the bottom of SEC passers in almost every major category. Last year, with Snell carrying a heavy workload and the defense reliably clamping down on opposing offenses, Kentucky didn't ask much from Wilson's arm and couldn't count on the results when it did. This year, the offense will need more from the passing game, especially with its best returning player, dynamic wideout Lynn Bowden Jr., primed for a breakout junior season. No one in Lexington is holding their breath for another 10-win miracle, but just how far the Cats regress will tell them a lot about whether the foundation is solid enough to produce another run in the foreseeable future.

— Written by Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) for Athlon Sports' 2019 SEC Football Preview